Story or Game? An Oncological Discourse

I was recently solicited for opinions on what I would do if given the opportunity to be the one to “make” D&D. My answer was I’d pretty much make B/X, use Holmes rules for scrolls and spell books, use 1e’s rule for acquiring new spells, and Star Frontiers’ order of battle. But that’s not what this post is about.

One guy replied to the initial question with the following:

To me, it’s not about making more complicated mechanics in an RPG, it’s about maintaining an Improv mentality between DM and players. When you put the story first, everyone wins. Improv and RPG can be ruined when someone tries to win, or be a star of the session.

Let’s take a look at those last two sentences. The first is the total opposite of correct, but the second had some merit (thought it springs directly from putting the first into practice), so let’s hear him out:

“If you say “my character is a badass”, you are already ruining it. You have to be open to what will happen, and let your guy interact/change”

This is true, but I often see it coming from players who emphasize “story first” gaming and enabled by “story first” DMs. Players become desperate for their characters to be relevant to the story rather than function as an integral part of the adventure-machine. Story focused games often marginalize particular characters because they remove the mechanical purposes for that character to be there. Fighters with nothing to fight, thieves with nothing to steal or no traps to disarm, wizards with no new magics to find and cast, etc. will lead to unhappy players.

I say “game first”. Story emerges from the party’s gameplay experience. Plus, that way you avoid a Key-man crisis where one character gets too important to the “story”, can’t die, or the “story” stalls out if that player isn’t able to play. The adventure is the “game” and completing that adventure successfully is the win state. The story is what happens during the game.

What about personal player/character goals?

Personal goals are icing on the cake, and they are critical variables in the emergence of narrative.

  • The DM handles world & setting
  • The Party has overarching goals based on DM’s content
  • The Players have individual goals based on their characters

Story emerges from the pursuit of individual and group goals within the framework that the DM provides. Games that focus on story, however, often impose a top-down structure:

  • The DM creates story and sets party goals.
  • The Party goals must conform to story
  • The Individual goals must jibe with the DM’s story goals, or they may go ignored and unfulfilled.

In this situation, players most willing to conform to the DM’s story will take the spotlight away from players who may have different or conflicting goals.

For example, in the con game I was in that Bruce Heard ran, the airship had:

  1. A murder mystery
  2. A haunted train
  3. A zoo full of magic animals

The top-down story, however, was the murder mystery, so it didn’t matter if some players wanted to ride the train or pet the animals. Players willing to conform to the top-down story imposed on the session got the most playtime and impact at the table.

A non-story game of the Dreams of Aerie module would be “Here is an airship, here are the things on the airship; what do you want to do?” The party could discuss and reach a group consensus based on both party and individual goals. The story then becomes what the party does.

Are individual/personal goals undesirable, a problem, or, at best, superfluous to the party’s goal? Of course not! Your thief’s desire to get rich could provide in-game justification for adventures as you’re offered hooks. A DM’s creative bandwidth is not unlimited, and being aware of players’ individual goals allows them to create content that will be of interest to them. Content is responsive to players’ goals.

But what about player’s attachments to characters? Won’t individual goals lead to players becoming over-invested in characters?

“Don’t go bonkers, but let people stay in the game somehow, no matter what.”

Yeah, because when someone’s character dies, we evict them from the table. This isn’t a Jack Chick tract and you’re not booting someone from the group when their character dies. They’re still in the game. And remember, I said “individuals'” and “players'” goals; a player’s goal can easily outlive any number of characters.

“A good DM will finesse the rules so that there can be consequences just shy of death for a character, just like GoT or other great shows.”

No. Just no.

While I don’t necessarily advocate that characters should be constantly dying, keeping characters alive by perpetual DM fiat destroys the game part of Dungeons & Dragons. Frequent character death at low levels can be a lot of fun, though, because you get to try a lot of new and different things.

9 responses to “Story or Game? An Oncological Discourse

  1. The whole point of the Game is to randomize and deform the Story. It’s meant to take your comfortable little imagined arc and smash it. Without letting the Game push you around, you completely kill suspense and eliminate the possibility of surprise, novelty, discovery, all the things you get from a book, series, or movie.

    • Kind of. The reason I advocate game first over story is that when the game comes first, the story is unpredictable and therefore the suspense is real.

      Awhile back, I talked about how even Tarzan had to make saves vs. death ( With a story, you KNOW the hero will make his saving throw; yes, he could’ve been instantly killed, but he isn’t, because then there wouldn’t be any more story. Whereas with a game, you don’t know what the outcome will be until it’s happening. The suspense is real because the risk is real. You KNOW Tarzan will narrowly dodge the horns of the primeval dire ox, but when Joe’s fighter makes his save or Bob’s wizard casts a perfectly timed spell to save him, it’s awesome, because it easily could’ve gone the other way.

    • Exactly! You can have fiat or suspense, but not both.

      And “oncological”? That’s a really nice shiv. I’m jealous I didn’t think of it.

  2. I think that the whole “storygaming” debate is based on a flawed concept. The story is what the players (meaning all the people at the table playing the game, GMs too) are doing when they play. The rules are what they use to keep order.

    Clear, simple, and final rules allow players to concentrate on the story rather than having to stop the story to look up and argue about rules. You could replace the entire mechanics of any game with a coin toss. The players describe the action and whenever there is an uncertain outcome, you flip a coin.

    In fact, I may design that system, just to prove a point.

    Story comes from the players’ willingness to make up the action. Rules can’t give you that, and settings can’t give you that. If you need a new rulebook in order to give yourself permission to run a character who is a swashbuckling pirate or to populate a dungeon with cyborg fungus-men you’re missing the whole point.

    People who are asking for a set of rules that encourage storytelling are never going to be satisfied, because they are asking for a system to do something that a system can’t do. It’s like getting lost on the way to the store and blaming the car.

    • Pretty much. To me, a)there will always be a story to every game, b)that story is what results naturally from playing the game, and c)trying to force a focus on story will ultimately detract from both the gaming and storytelling experience.

    • “Clear, simple, and final rules allow players to concentrate on the story rather than having to stop the story to look up and argue about rules.”

      Also, this ^^^^

      Because I’ve complained about a certain top-down narrative approach to gaming, a lot of people first think that what I’m looking for is a system with a lot of crunch; that could not be further from the truth. A simpler system that can keep the game flowing without getting bogged down in mechanical complexities is far preferable. Ironically, I’ve seen a lot of top-down story approach games that use really crunchy systems, and ultimately the story gets lost in the players’ attempt to make their characters “work”. You need a car to drive down a street, but you’ve been given a tank; yeah, it’s cool that you’ve got a tank, but you don’t know how to drive it and it does way more than you actually need.

    • And consequently, that’s part of why I liked DCC a lot less once we got out of the Funnel; it goes from a rules-lite high fatality game with lots of story potential to a clumsy 3e clone in a flash once everyone hits level 1.

  3. There is a storytelling game that works on a coin toss. for each step the players create two outcomes; one they prefer, one for their “shadow” which is kinda their evil-fate-twin. Coin toss for the outcome.

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